Why would a climbing couple go to Costa Rica you ask? Well even though we are both climbers, one of us (“him” she gestures with a thumb) had scheduled arthroscopic knee surgery a month before the wedding and another (“her” he gestures with his head) wanted to do something a little bit different than their usual roughing-it sort of trip and especially wanted to go somewhere within budget that they had both never been to before.
Costa Rica became the destination of choice since it had possibilities for adventure, wildlife viewing and even comfort as well as a chance to see an active volcano (something I have always wanted to see).
It did not disappoint.
Day 1: Travel Day. Los Angeles to San Jose, Costa Rica
We went from LAX to Houston to the San Jose International Airport in Alajuela to the Hotel Don Carlos in San Jose. The flights weren’t too bad, we both had only carry-on luggage so we didn’t have to worry about our luggage being on the wrong plane, and we were pleasantly surprised that the “snack” on both legs of our trip was a hot chicken wrap with a cold side salad rather than just a small bag of peanuts. Arriving at the San Jose airport we had no trouble finding our prearranged driver who took us to San Jose and our hotel. The hotel was quite interesting, it was a former Presidential house and had a lot of history and a mish mash of original and historical art. Even though we were tired we quietly explored the hotel before going to bed.
Day 2: San Jose and Arenal. Travel and the Volcano.
The included breakfast with our stay was a continental breakfast buffet which consisted of fruit and a few other dishes. I made sure to try the pinto gallo which is a customary Costa Rican dish mainly consisting of beans, rice and some vegetables and spices, I think it was a little dry because of being out on the buffet table but I liked it. While eating we were alerted that our shuttle driver had arrived. He was early according to our itinerary but it wasn’t too much of a bother. We picked up a total of three more passengers. All of us were in Costa Rica for the first time and all of us were US citizens (us from Southern California, two guys from Northern California and one girl from New York). The New York girl asked if anyone spoke Spanish and I said I kind of did. Since it seems only one other person volunteered that he had taken it in school but had since tried to practice and failed miserably, the rest of the passengers decided that I was the unofficial translator. Our driver could speak a little bit of English so between his English and my Spanish we got a “tour” of things as we drove along. What we saw as we went up towards the mountain region were factories, farms, a palm plantation, many schools, soccer fields and houses. Unfortunately for the other shuttle passengers, they were dropped off before we saw some wildlife in the jungle right beside the road which included a raccoon type creature and a monkey in a tree.
Once we got up the long and increasingly bumpy road with “muchos huecos” to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, K and I checked in, got a bite to eat, decided to explore and ended up on the “Old Lava Flow” trail which we proceeded to take probably a little further than we should have.
Why do I say that? Well because we got pretty darn far up the volcano and then that night we watched the volcano erupting, which included some of the cooled boulders rumbling and cracking their way far down the mountain — certainly as far down as we had gone up (though it was to the west of the path we had taken). We watched the volcano until fairly late at night, the rumbling, cracking and pyrotechnics were quite mesmerizing: the power of the Earth and the birth of creation. You watch something like that and you don’t wonder why there are so many myths based on volcanoes. Watching the Arenal Volcano was the primary reason I had picked this hotel, but from all reports I knew that the volcano top was usually cloud covered and also that seeing it erupt was unusual. I had booked 2 nights to increase our viewing chances and it looked like my choice had paid off.
Day 3: Arenal and Fortuna. Waterfall, horseback riding and ziplining.
In the morning we ate at the breakfast buffet (included) this one was a mix of fruit and hot food. We ate heartily and then went on a hike to a nearby waterfall where we went for a quick dip. After that we took a different and slightly more challenging path back to the hotel. Once we got on hotel grounds we checked out the small volcano museum on the premises before catching a ride into Fortuna, our departure point for a combination horseback ride / zip line experience. We had chosen that tour partly because, though K’s knee had performed pretty well during our volcano hike/scramble, he was quite tired from it and we figured horseback riding and ziplining wouldn’t be too much of a strain compared to another, longer hike we were interested in. Being climbers we didn’t expect too much from the zipline experience but since it was something Costa Rica is famous for and because I had hopes it would be a nice way to see the rainforest without putting too much strain on K’s knee, we went for it. Turns out there were only three of us who signed up for the tour that afternoon. K and I and Luis, a French Canadian who was on honeymoon but whose pregnant wife was staying at their hotel. After being asked if we’d ridden horses before (we all had) we each got a helmet and a horse. We set off with our guides and let me tell you, it was no slow plodding pony ride. We galloped and trotted. We started off on a wide dirt road but soon rode on uneven ground then through a wide plain with hillocks and even did a stream crossing. Our horses also seemed to want to race each other. I had great fun though I must admit to not letting go of the saddle horn with my left hand and being a little concerned when my horse went up and down the hillocks. When we finally arrived at the zipline area we were able to have a cup of water and then get some instruction.
We were given Petzl harnesses and a curious sort of glove/brake thing which strapped on to our wrist so we could let it dangle when it was not in use. We were told we would only need to brake on certain ziplines. The ziplines were thick cables and we were attached on two points to a pulley sort of device which we had to weight and unweight by doing a pull up motion on the cable while a guide hooked/unhooked us. The day was gray and I wondered if it might rain on us, but the temperature was warm, perhaps around 80 degrees Farenheit. Right before the first zipline I got a little nervous since I’d seen the first guide take off in a flash, but once I was on it I found it to be a pleasant sort of way to travel and in fact not nearly as fast as I had expected (wanted?) it to be. We did 10 ziplines, sometimes having to walk up steep steps to the next platform. One of them had a view of Arenal Volcano. I made a game of trying to brake so that I’d land exactly at the platform though I didn’t mind if I had to pull myself along either. Our guides were funny and friendly, one even played video camera man and filmed for us. We rode the horses back and again they wanted to race. My horse, Rayo, seemed to like taking the less beaten path which involved a lot of hillocks. I had a lot of fun during the tour but I think it would’ve been more exciting if I wasn’t a climber and/or if the ziplines didn’t cross over some of the same ground. I guessed that the combination horseback riding / zipline was an idea of a landowner who had a farm so it was not a way to travel and sight see the way I had hoped it might be since we obviously could only go on his property.
Back in Fortuna, K and I walked around the town, buying snack supplies from a local supermarket, window shopping and strolling the main plaza park before we ate dinner at a local restaurant. We took a cab back to the Lodge for more volcano watching and were rewarded with another light show until thicker clouds moved in to obstruct the view at which point we could still hear the rumbling of the rocks and the humming of the rainforest at night.
Day 4: Travel Day. Arenal to Manuel Antonio. Travel and the Beach
We woke up early and had a slightly rushed breakfast due to some confusion about our shuttle pick up time. But our driver was nice about it and in fact we were on time to pick up the two other folks (2 girls from New York) who were also going to the Manuel Antonio area. It was about a four and a half hour drive with two official stops and one unscheduled one which I explained in Spanish to our driver on behalf of a female passenger in our shuttle. The temperature was much warmer down in the Manuel Antonio area, as we were right by the beach now. For this part of our trip I had opted for a hotel upgrade and we stayed at the Arenas del Mar, a very eco conscious hotel/resort with access to both a public and “private” beach. When we arrived we first were at one level in the jungle hillside and then were taken via electric golf carts to the real reception area. The strange layout of the place was due to the desire to not chop down native trees and the fact that the property was on a hill which overlooked the beach. At check-in we were given two non alcoholic ice blended drinks and then two water bottles which they urged us to use instead of buying bottled water (tap water is safe to drink in Costa Rica). The really neat thing about the bottles is that they are only good for 18 months because they are biodegradable! We checked in and found a gorgeous room with a great view plus a complimentary bottle of wine since it was our honeymoon (the Observatory Lodge had also given a bottle of wine by the way). We took off to walk down to the beach. We were at first planning on just exploring but K saw a few guys out with surfboards catching waves so he wanted to try bodysurfing. We gave our sunglasses and my shirt to the hotel guard and went off into the water which was wonderfully warm. We live in California in a beach town but the water temperature is never very warm so this was still a treat for us. One of the guys surfing let K borrow his rental board but K only got to catch one wave because the guy had to return it. The wave he caught wasn’t that great but he was happy about the water temperature, there’s just something nice about being able to swim well after the sun goes down and still feel warm enough to air dry when you get out. At night we had a really nice dinner at the hotel restaurant which included a slightly more upscale version of a traditional “Tico” meal called “casada” which is also the word for “marriage”.
Day 5: Manuel Antonio. Manuel Antonio National Park. Wildlife and Humanlife.
We got up and had a great breakfast (again included with your stay but this time also including a cooked to order item off of a menu as well as a fruit buffet). This was our day to go to the main attraction of the area, Manuel Antonio National Park. One of the smaller of the many national parks in Costa Rica, it was supposed to be one of the best in terms of being able to see wildlife. We decided not to sign up with an official tour (which would’ve included a taxi ride to the park’s entrance) but instead walked along the beach until we got near enough to the park to cut over, declining folks offering to be our guide along the way. Once we paid the entrance fee and went inside we saw a painted sign map and a fairly wide road going further into the jungle which seemed quite crowded and well traveled. We took a side path hoping it might be less crowded but were soon disabused of that notion and back tracked. We set off for a look out point instead. On the way there we saw some capuchin monkeys, unfortunately they were being fed by a German lady who was sitting at a table at what was obviously a lunch stopping point. Like in national parks back in the States, you aren’t supposed to feed the wild animals. One of the monkeys seemed to be upset at the woman and was baring its teeth at her. A guide came up the trail and told her not to feed them. She said, “Ok, ok”. But she didn’t seem like she was going to stop. The guide said, “I am sorry if he attacks you”. There was a tense moment where the monkey went closer to the woman but it then went back to the trees, perhaps because there more people around now.
K and I hiked on to the look out point, spotting a fairly large rodent type mammal on the way and then went down to explore the park’s beaches. After doing some traversing around a rocky point we ended up at a remote spot, just us, a big black spiny lizard (which we at first thought was an iguana) and many red crabs which skittered away when we approached them. The view was great but we didn’t swim very long there as the ocean floor was fairly rocky. K seemed to take a liking to the lizard on the beach and decided we should help feed him, we started herding crabs in his direction until he finally caught one. Then we went to another beach area we had passed along the way and started to hike out. That’s when we came upon two other tourists who were standing still because of capuchin monkeys on the path. We all watched them as they scampered across the trail, up into plants right near us. K swears one was putting on a show of looking forlornly at some leaves and then at us to show us he was hungry but I’m not so sure he wasn’t just anthropomorphizing the monkey’s behavior. It was still pretty neat to be that close to wild monkeys.
After awhile the monkeys moved off and we started out. We headed out of the National Park and this time walked along the street for part of the way back. We were pretty hot and had consumed all our water so we stopped to buy a liter bottle of coke in a drugstore. Unfortunately we had our first (and only) bad experience with a local. The counter guy tried to rip us off by shorting our change by $10 US. K had given him a $20 (US dollars are welcome and often used in Costa Rica) and he gave us change in colones, making a show to count out many coins… which were only worth about 50 cents US a piece. K called him on it and he at first tried to say he had given him a $10 bill but gave us correct change in the end and we went on our way. Back at the hotel we swam in the hotel pool (they don’t use chlorine by the way but some kind of environmentally friendly system) and then had dinner at the hotel again, they had local musicians playing who were pretty good.
Day 6: Manuel Antonio. Rest Day, Beaches and Friends.
This turned out to be our rest day. We had hemmed and hawed about going SCUBA diving, K because he wasn’t sure his knee could take being restricted by a wetsuit and both of us because we had intended to review our PADI cd’s first but hadn’t gotten around to it. Well “non haste” made “waste” I guess. By the time I called the only dive shop in town they told me the dive was full. Strange thing was, I called them again on this day to check if they had a wait list for an afternoon dive but they told me they didn’t have an afternoon dive and asked me what time I had called when I was told this morning’s dive had been full. I got the distinct impression that the dive had not been full and someone had gotten their info wrong. It wasn’t a language issue as both folks I talked to spoke perfect English. We were asked if we wanted to dive on Sunday but we couldn’t because we were flying Monday. Oh well. We had a great time at the “private hotel beach” (all beaches in Costa Rica are public beaches but this one was in a cove which was more accessible by folks who stayed at our hotel). K and I even got to boogie board a little because the hotel had free boogie boards to use. We also made friends with Rodbin, one of the electric car drivers who showed us some sloths which lived right on hotel property. He had questions for us about California and we had questions for him about Costa Rica.
Day 7: Manuel Antonio. Mangrove kayaking and howler monkeys.
With SCUBA not being an option, we had signed up for a kayak mangrove tour. It started raining before breakfast but we figured, “what’s a little rain when you’re kayaking?” Apparently another couple did not have the same kind of thinking and they backed out so we had one very knowledgeable guide to ourselves. He even told us about the history of the small town of Quepos that we drove through before we got to the boat launch. The mangroves were fairly peaceful once we got off the branch that was right next to people’s houses, we saw a heron right off the bat as well as a small falcon native to the area. The rain stopped which made it a more pleasant paddle. Our guide pointed out a peculiar spider and let us feel the strength of its web, which was surprisingly strong and not sticky. He said that it was being studied to possibly be made into a biodegradable material as strong as kevlar. I spotted a kingfisher bird on our way back to the launch. After the trip we went back at the hotel, freshened up and started to walk back down to the beach trailhead again. Rodbin saw us and we learned that we had missed some howler monkeys at breakfast. He saw our disappointment so told us to hop into his cart and drove us down to where they were currently hanging out in some trees. It was awesome. A troop of monkeys climbed over our heads, one had a baby which clung to her or went out on its own. Just as we were ready to go back to the beach trailhead we were stopped in our tracks by the woofing/howling of the monkey troop. Even Rodbin, who told us that sometimes he heard them as his “alarm clock” was smiling in delight as we listened to the slightly eery but awesome sound. We went back to the beach after that for low tide exploring, swimming and some beach bouldering (don’t get too excited climbers, it was crumbly rock). K was disappointed because the waves weren’t that great, he had been talking about renting his own surfboard until this point.
Day 8: Travel Day. Manuel Antonio to Quepos to San Jose to Los Angeles
I was sad it was time to leave. We ate breakfast, saying goodbye to a waiter who had vowed to speak to me only in Spanish once he learned I was trying to speak it. We then had one last ride with Rodbin as well. Travel then was to the small Quepos airport. We had a flight with Nature Air, the “first carbon neutral airline”. They bought carbon offset credits. Since the alternative mode of transportation would have been a 4 plus hour ride in a car, I think this was a good deal for both us and the environment. The plane ride was short and unfortunately I was not on the side of the plane that overlooked the beaches, but it was still quite scenic. Upon landing we took a ride over to San Jose International and paid our departure tax. We ended up buying a few souvenirs at the airport since we hadn’t seen anything that really caught our eye in the towns. Then it was off for home.
We would love to go back. There are so many things that sounded interesting to do but that we didn’t get to, one of the formost was to go diving. Perhaps next time we might stay in the area more known for the diving spots though, down near Manuel Antonio is not the most known spot for diving which made the “full/not full” mix up easier to take at least. Another thing we missed out on was a spelunking tour, not sure how interesting it would have been but it sounded neat since they warned that your clothes might get ruined. River rafting was also a miss this time, due to time constraints and K’s knee condition, I think I even would have liked to have visited a butterfly and frog reserve as well. Then there are whole other regions of the country we didn’t get to as well. Still, we were quite happy with how our trip turned out, especially since K’s knee was not at a hundred percent. Being able to just kick back in a nice hotel and have room service is something I think everyone should experience at least once, even if you’re the most diehard of dirtbags and especially if you’re on your honeymoon.
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